There a comes a time in every stylista’s life when she realizes that the day’s outfit might not have been her best choice. The moment might come after something as inconsequential as stumbling in her Natacha Marros platforms, or as scary as catching her sandal under the gas pedal while driving 70 miles an hour down the highway. Perhaps a cigarette gets too close to the diaphanous fascinator she pinned into her hair-sprayed coif, or she realizes too late that the babydoll Westwood she chose to walk a mile to work in is ill-suited to autumn winds. We’ve all been there, in some form or another. But on this day in 1927, dancer Isadora Duncan paid the ultimate price for fashion, when her long, billowing, hand-painted Roman Chatov scarf became tangled in the rear axle of a convertible sports car, yanking her aloft from the passenger seat, breaking her neck and strangling her. Duncan’s last words: “Je vais à l’amour” (I am off to love). Let this be a lesson to us all: Wear scarves shorter than the length of a sports car, and beware of Casanovas in convertibles.
Actual fashion victims—those so dedicated to style that they die for it—are nothing new, having been around for centuries. One of history’s most famous slaves to fashion, Marie Antoinette, was beheaded as punishment for her extravagance; the mob was particularly incensed by her wardrobe that occupied three rooms of the palace. When the hobble skirt came into fashion in the early 20th century, a number of women around the world literally fell to their deaths between 1910 and 1914. In recent years, unstable platform shoes contributed to the deaths of a handful of Japanese women, and this past April, in a scenario was all too close to Duncan’s, a Muslim woman in Australia was strangled when her burka caught in the wheels of the go-kart she was driving. And, of course, women have starved themselves to death for fashion for several decades now. Fashion victims are a tragic consequence of the allure of fashion’s fantasy.
For Duncan, her macabre death by clothing seemed like destiny. The person most often credited as the creator of modern dance acted out her own life as if it were an act of performance art itself. Tragedy, poverty and heartbreak were frequent companions, with irony running close behind. Her two children also died in a freak automobile accident, and times of joy—as was the day she died—seemed too often cut short by sadness. In its report on the accident, the New York Times adopted a lecturing, we-all-saw-this-coming tone: “Affecting, as was her habit, an unusual costume,” the reporter wrote, “Miss Duncan was wearing an immense iridescent silk scarf wrapped about her neck and streaming in long folds, part of which was swathed about her body with part trailing behind.” It continues: “It is recalled that Miss Duncan for years affected an unusual dress cult and, with her brother, Raymond, often appeared in the streets of Paris and elsewhere garbed in a Roman toga with bare legs and sandals. Roman purple was her preferred color and she often walked about Nice in flowing scarves and robes.”
The Petit Parisien was no less wary of the circumstances surrounding Duncan’s demise, but perhaps put it more gently: “This woman who throughout her life tried to shed grace and beauty about her met with the most tragic end imaginable.” The public ate it up, and her funeral five days later at Père Lachaise Cemetary in Paris attracted hundreds of curious onlookers. Just as it happens today following an unexpected celebrity death, the very affections that once scandalized become celebrated, and, as with Duncan, an icon is born.